Legacy of one man's rifle

SUCCESSION: Jake Mirfin with the hand-me-down Husqvarna and an Otago fallow trophy shot by Zane Mirfin with Rob’s rifle.
SUCCESSION: Jake Mirfin with the hand-me-down Husqvarna and an Otago fallow trophy shot by Zane Mirfin with Rob’s rifle.

A hand-me-down hunting weapon has been customised and is now a well-used family treasure.

My son Jake arrived home an excited boy last night.

School holidays are there to be enjoyed and Jake had relished the chance to enjoy an up-country duck-shooting afternoon with his grandfather Stuart.

ORIGINAL OWNER: Rob Mirfin with a red stag and his Husqvarna .30-06 on the Cobb Tops in the 1960s.
ORIGINAL OWNER: Rob Mirfin with a red stag and his Husqvarna .30-06 on the Cobb Tops in the 1960s.

Shooting from lay-out blinds over crop land using silhouette decoys, Jake had got plenty of shots away at incoming paradise ducks and had enjoyed modest success. He'd shot with Granddad's trusty Ithaca pump-action 16 gauge shotgun before, a gun which has stood the test of time in the Mirfin family, and it got me thinking about other hunting trips with family members, and the almost heirloom equipment that we often enjoy using.

Many of us inherit hunting and fishing gear over time from an older generation as people are no longer active in the outdoors or have passed on. In my basement I have many such treasures, including old cane fly rods and whitebait net that belonged to my grandfather, Ken Hill.

Living in a modern technological age of planned obsolescence, much of the equipment we accumulate today from earlier generations can be old, damaged or out of date. Much of this equipment, I suspect, is kept for historical or sentimental reasons rather than for practical use in the field.

Some valued gear, though, lasts for generations, like my Swedish-made Husqvarna rifle that once belonged to my father's brother, Rob. This story then, is the tale of one man's rifle.

Robert Ashton Mirfin was raised on the historic family farm of Oulton, sandwiched between the Little Grey, Rough, and Big Grey (Mawheraiti, Otututu, and Mawhera) rivers near the small West Coast town of Ikamatua. Rob loved the outdoor life, hunting whenever he could with his brother Stuart on the farm, and in nearby valleys and hills.

Back in those days of the 1950s and 60s, when the land was still being broken in, the riverbeds and bush edges teemed with plentiful fallow deer, in those glorious days before the modern scourge of 1080 poison that was to forever decimate the Rough River fallow herd.

Fallow deer (Dama dama), a native of Western Eurasia, are especially graceful and beautiful animals that grow palmated antlers, and provide the best venison of any New Zealand deer species. The two brothers were insatiable fallow deer hunters and together they developed a lifetime affinity for these majestic animals.

Encouraged by their father and uncles, both men shot their first deer before they were 10 years old using .22 rifles. Before long, using money made by trapping possums, Rob purchased his beloved Husqvarna rifle as a 17-year-old and the hunting world was his oyster.

Most people nowadays probably think of sewing machines or chainsaws when they hear the name Husqvarna, but back then it was a top rifle, styled with Scandinavian excellence. Rob never used a riflescope on his rifle, preferring open sights for close-range snap-shooting in thick bush, but was always known as a crack shot. Dad still tells the story of Rob taking five deer with five shots as they ran through forest.

Rob and Stuart were inseparable on the hill, hunting together whenever they could. The local fallow deer were a favourite target and Rob was known to mark out premium hunting clearings with cairns of rocks to mark out shooting distances at 100-yard intervals to improve his accuracy. Deer were plentiful and it was a rare day Stuart and Rob were unsuccessful. When they both moved to Nelson in the early 1960s they had a great time exploring new areas, hunting the hills of the Marlborough Sounds, Kawatiri, and their favourite, the Cobb Valley.

In the family archives there are valued photographic images of Rob beside numerous dead stags cradling his Husqvarna. It was a magical time in history and when deer carcasses became saleable for export markets, Rob and Stuart made valuable supplementary income shooting deer at weekends.

Stuart had a Ford Anglia car where he could fit two dead deer on the roof-rack, two in the boot, two in the backseat and one in the front passenger seat.

Rob also shot for helicopter recovery crews with one trip seeing him dropped into the Karamea earthquake country of the upper Beautiful River to shoot deer on foot, with the piles of gutted and headless carcasses being picked up after several days by helicopter. In between the meat shooting, they hunted recreationally together whenever they could in those halcyon days.

Idyllic times were not to last, though, and the last time Stuart was to see Rob alive was when Rob held my hand as a toddler when he walked me down the road on top of the Spooner Range. Rob died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1970 from a massive brain aneurism at the age of 26 in Richmond.

Rob left behind a wife and baby daughter. My cousin Tracy, now in her 40s, has her own family but the poignant photo of her father Rob, his rifle and a stag, remain on her lounge room wall.

At the time of Rob's untimely death, much of his treasured hunting gear was given to Stuart, including the Husqvarna rifle which sat in state in our family glass-fronted gun cabinet during my childhood years.

Sometime about 1982, after I had shot my first deer, Stuart decided I should shoot with Rob's rifle. A goat hunt up Marlborough's Waihopai Valley is my earliest recollection of firing the rifle and I have a photo somewhere of several billy goats I shot with it that day.

But the rifle had too much recoil, the .30-06 calibre booting a little too hard for a light-boned 14-year-old. The barrel, too, was in bad shape we found out from a local gunsmith, worn out by the thousands of rounds Rob had fired at animals over the years and making accuracy unreliable.

Rob's rifle was once again relegated to the gun cabinet until Stuart had a cunning plan.

"If you'll shoot with Rob's rifle, I'll get it re-barrelled and buy you a scope". What a deal, I thought, as Rob's rifle was fitted with a new barrel in 7x57 calibre and a 2-7x vari-power telescopic sight.

Maybe it's a bit like the story of the old axe with three new heads and five new handles but the rifle still utilises the original wooden stock, receiver, bolt and action. The new barrel, rifle scope and change of calibre has customised the rifle to me and my hunting but Rob's rifle is still close to the original.

Over the years I've shot red, fallow and whitetail deer with Rob's rifle, as well as pigs, goats, wild sheep, wallabies, thar and chamois. I've carried Rob's rifle into the valleys and mountains of Fiordland, Stewart Island, South Westland, Otago, North and South Canterbury, Marlborough and Nelson, with more exciting locations yet to come.

The rifle is heavy but accurate, and whenever I miss a shot, it is always operator error, never the rifle. Over the years I've changed the look of the rifle with fancy rubber slings, scope covers, folding bi-pod and even a sound moderator, but the rifle is pretty much the same as it always has been.

I know my father Stuart has derived much pleasure from my use of Rob's rifle over the years, evoking old memories and creating many more new ones. Photos of recent hunting trips with the rifle propped in snow or beside a fallen animal have the same familiar look they did when Rob took such photos back in the 1960s.

At times I have been tempted to search for a new rifle, something lighter, more modern, perhaps in weatherproof stainless steel, but always I have stopped short. Rob's rifle has become a family heirloom, a trusted hunting companion, and a symbol of hunting in the past and present for myself, my father, and maybe even my kids.

Sometimes after a successful hunt, I can almost imagine Rob looking on approvingly, pleased that his rifle is still bringing home the bacon 43 years on.